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A Veterans Affairs Department letter sent to veterans offering to review denied sexual trauma disability claims is “inappropriate, insensitive and unhelpful,” according to a statement from the office of Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., one of the lawmakers who made the review possible.
Tester and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, are asking VA to do better, and giving the department just 30 days to make revisions.
Their concerns are in response to a letter VA began sending out in April to veterans who had filed disability compensation claims for post-traumatic stress related to sexual trauma, but whose claims were denied.
The letters were sent after VA officials revised the criteria for disability compensation claims for victims of rape and sexual assault to recognize that a trail of military records — usually required to qualify for other service-connected disabilities — may not be present.
The review is part of an effort to give those with denied claims another shot. It applies only to instances where a claim was denied, not claims where a veteran sought a higher disability rating than the one VA ended up approving.
The letter, signed by Thomas Murphy, director of VA’s compensation service, tells veterans whose sexual trauma claims were denied that a new review is possible to “determine if any evidence was overlooked.” It says that in some cases, a new mental health examination may be required as part of the review.
It tells veterans interested in a review to contact their local regional office, but does not provide a name or number to contact.
Without a contact, Sanders and Tester said veterans are likely to call VA’s toll-free benefits hotline for more information. But it is unclear whether the call center staff has received training to deal with questions.
In their joint letter, sent Friday to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Tester and Sanders say the VA notice is “inappropriate for the task at hand given the enormity and sensitivity of the issue.”
A VA spokeswoman said the department has not yet responded to the senators’ letter, but it is committed to “accurately adjudicating claims based on military sexual trauma in a thoughtful and caring manner.”
Veterans who have previously submitted a claim for sexual trauma should contact the VA hotline, 800-827-1000, to “ask to have that claim reviewed,” spokeswoman Victoria Dillon said.
Tester said VA’s letter, in addition to not providing any contact information, also does not tell veterans that policies have changed so there is a better chance of approval. Also, he said, VA didn’t coordinate its effort with veterans’ service organizations, which are responsible for helping to file more than half of all disability claims.
The two senators also cited continuing problems veterans have experienced with the toll-free benefits hotline.
“A significant number of callers are still unable to successfully connect with a call agent,” the letter says. This could pose a particular problem for sexual assault victims, who “will be hesitant to request review without the ability to quickly connect to an experienced and compassionate individual, standing ready to address their specific situations,” the letter says.
The letter asks VA to immediately consult with veterans’ service organizations so they are prepared to help, and to provide specialized training to VA staff at the national call center to help people who want a review of denied sexual trauma claims.
They do not specifically ask for new letters to be sent providing better contact information, but aides said they want future letters to contain specific information for each veteran.